“Aimless browsing is strongly encouraged” is the (shopping) tag line of Philly AIDS Thrift and it perfectly captures the nonprofit store’s welcoming, relaxed vibe. Its mission, however, is anything but aimless. Philly AIDS Thrift raises funds for AIDS services by selling “lovely, useful and interesting” items while expanding the square footage of AIDS awareness.
Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou, who co-founded the store nearly seven years ago with friends Tom Brennan, Mike Wilson, and Peter Heiler, explains why the thrift store opened its doors: “We’re longtime AIDS activists, with many friends who have died from the disease and many others who are living with it. And we’re also lovers of junk! So, we put the two together and Philly AIDS Thrift is what we came up with. I think we’re at a time when people aren’t thinking about [AIDS] as much, but it’s still something that’s so prevalent—and the store is just our way of bringing attention to it.”
The store recently moved from its first location on Bainbridge Street to a new one on Fifth Street.
“In the very beginning, we started bringing stuff from our apartments and houses, trying to fill it up a little bit. Then people kept giving us wonderful donations to the point where we were totally packed,” she relates. The store acquired warehouse space across the street and devoted it to selling electronics and furniture. Less than a year ago, the store started having talks with the owners of its new location, a former furniture place that had a huge showroom perfect for “aimless browsing.”
“We took over half of the building and moved in July. It’s fantastic! The difference is night and day,” says Kallas-Saritsoglou, adding that while they hated to leave the old space, with its quirkiness and funky decorations, doubling the size of the store was worth it in the end. “There’s so much more foot traffic and so many more people that never knew we existed because they didn’t turn down Bainbridge Street.”
With color-tag sales and all kinds of merchandise, from furniture and electronics to china and antiques, the store is a “fun way” to contribute to the fight against AIDS on a local level, says Kallas-Saritsoglou. “People who come here may not always come because of the mission, but they’re still helping out.”
With its eclectic vibe, a diverse playlist of music streaming out of speakers, and a prime location off of South Street, a popular shopping strip, the store creates a special kind of synergy. Says Kallas-Saritsoglou: “Our shoppers, our donors, our volunteers—they’re a really diverse group of people. We appeal to everybody—teenagers, older folks, hipsters.
“The items that we get are also really diverse—from dollar-store stuff to absolutely beautiful antiques. We’re all over the place in everything that we do!”
Open seven days a week, the store employs eleven staff and enlists 130 volunteers. “The volunteers really are the backbone of the place. I know that non-profits always say that, but it really is the truth here. It’s not just Tom and I running the place, telling everyone what to do. It’s a culmination of everybody’s ideas and influence,” says Kallas-Saritsoglou, who adds that the store empowers staff and volunteers to run with their “creative juices.” “It’s just a beautiful place.”
Each month, Philly AIDS Thrift donates proceeds to the AIDS Fund, a local nonprofit that distributes funds to twenty-nine different organizations across a five-county Philadelphia region. In this arrangement, the AIDS Fund does not take anything out of these proceeds for its own administrative costs. Because of the increase in foot traffic, sales have gone up and so have the store’s donations to the AIDS Fund.
“We’ve been able to increase the amount that we give twice already. After about two months in the new space, we increased our donation from $8,000 a month to $10,000. And just last week at our board meeting, we decided we’re going to up what we give away again to $12,000 a month,” says Kallas-Saritsoglou. As of February of this year, Philly AIDS Thrift surpassed $365,450 in total cash contributions to local AIDS organizations.
One of these benefitting organizations is the Mazzoni Center, a nonprofit that offers comprehensive health and wellness services in an LGBT-focused environment. In addition to the funds channeled through the AIDS Fund, the Mazzoni Center received $5,000 from the store for its recent toy and coat drive.
The Mazzoni Center and Philly AIDS Thrift are linked in another way. The Mazzoni Center parks its mobile rapid HIV testing unit outside of the thrift store every other Friday.
“Another direct service that we provide is giving vouchers to those AIDS organizations, particularly the ones that have case management programs,” notes Kallas-Saritsoglou. “If someone is HIV-positive and at a point in their life where they’re really struggling financially—perhaps they don’t have a job; perhaps they just got out of jail—they can bring the vouchers given to them by their case managers to the store and they can get $50-worth of clothing and kitchenware.”
Because it is a store that is open to the general public, Philly AIDS Thrift supports others in need, from college students to individuals experiencing homelessness.
“We fulfill our mission just by the nature of who we are. We serve all communities. In front of the store we have free bins. Little things, extra stuff. People love the free bins! We have Dollar Land upstairs, a big room where everything’s just a dollar—and you can get really nice clothes!” she says.
Philly AIDS Thrift is also a regular fixture at community and neighborhood events, setting up shop at any kind of outdoor festival. “Outfest, Pridefest, Greenfest, Punk Rock Flea Market—we’re a presence all over town!”
She continues: “We try to help out as much as possible. And with this new space, who knows what else we can do. It’s so exciting because it’s so new, and we’re still growing.”
Emboldened by this sense of momentum, the staff and board of Philly AIDS Thrift regularly brainstorms future plans about ways to help out with the cause. There’s been talk of turning the store’s coffee station area into a full-blown café, doubling the space into a site for a speakers’ series. With all of its contacts with local AIDS service organizations, says Kallas-Saritsoglou, the store could easily fill the slate and help to educate the public about what’s going on in the AIDS community.
The store-as-meeting place would be perfect because “we’re right off of South Street. There’s not a lot of that kind of thing going on here. People think we’re fun, cool, and hip—that’s the kind of vibe that we have. I think this is a great space to be able to do more and provide more because people are listening.”
Philly AIDS Thrift is located at 710 S. 5th Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit the store’s Web site at www.phillyaidsthrift.com.